Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Thriller - A Midsummer Nightmare and Death in Deep Water (1976)

The final two episodes of the Brian Clemens-created British Thriller anthology series went to air in May 1976.

Network in the UK released the compete series on DVD and thankfully they’e the original versions, not the later American versions which added excruciatingly bad extra scenes.

A Midsummer Nightmare

This episode starts with a prologue in which a young woman is murdered in the woods. After the opening credits the scene switches to London.

Jody Baxter (Joanna Pettet) is married to a private detective. They’re still in love but they’re separated because she wants to Be Her Own Person. Johnny (her husband) is off to Rome on a case. Jody offers to mind the store while he’s gone but he dismisses the idea out of hand. But Jody decides to play private detective anyway.

She manages to get herself a case and it’s a murder case. A murder that happened five years earlier (the one we saw in the pre-credits sequence). Arnold Tully (Freddie Jones) doesn’t want her to find out who murdered his daughter. He already knows that. He wants her to find the evidence that will convict the killer.

Detective Sergeant George Briggs (Brian Blessed) tells Jody that Tully is right. It was definitely Peter Ingram who murdered Annabella Tully. The police never had any doubts but they didn’t have enough evidence to be sure of getting a conviction. The case was never brought to trial because the police were hoping that eventually the evidence they needed would turn up.

Briggs, who is a jovial sort of fellow, is quite happy for Jody to investigate the case and he’s happy to offer her whatever co-operation she needs. He would very much like to see Peter Ingram behind bars.

What Briggs hasn’t told her is that Ingram wasn’t the only suspect.

It also turns out that Tully was Annabella’s uncle, not her father. He adopted her when her parents were killed.

Jody isn’t a trained detective but she’s married to one so she’s undoubtedly picked up a few pointers from her husband and she is intelligent and most of all she’s sceptical. She also knows her Shakespeare and she thinks that that might be useful in this case, with both the victim and most of the suspects being theatrical types. And she’d like to know why Annabella’s copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream wasn’t found near her body.

She’s also in considerable danger. It’s a small town. Everybody knows everything that is going on, so the killer obviously knows there’s a private detective snooping around.

Jody is supposed to an American (this was an ITC series so there had to be an American in the cast). Joanna Pettet was English but raised in Canada so playing an American was no problem. Pettet’s career never really took off which is a pity. She was a decent actress and she does a fine job here.

Seeing Brian Blessed on screen is of course always a treat. Freddie Jones was wonderful at playing oddball characters and he’s excellent as Tully, still grieving for Annabella after five years.

For this instalment of Thriller Brian Clemens tuned out a very solid script with a good well-constructed mystery. The audience doesn’t know the identity of the killer and Clemens makes sure we’re kept in a state of uncertainty. There are two obvious suspects and there are other not-so-obvious but definitely possible suspects. There’s good suspense. We know Jody is playing a very dangerous game and she also doesn’t know who the killer is (she’s too sceptical to just automatically assume that it must be Ingram). We’re worried for her right from the start and we get more worried as the story progresses).

I was pretty sure I knew who the killer was, but I was wrong.

The consensus view is that Thriller was running out of steam by this point but I think A Midsummer Nightmare is actually pretty good.

Death in Deep Water

Death in Deep Water was the final episode of Thriller. Gary Stevens (Bradford Dillman) is on the run. He was going to testify against organised crime but changed his mind and decided to get out the United States. Now he’s living in a cottage in a little fishing village in England. He’s bored and going a bit stir-crazy but at least he’s pretty confident he’s safe.

He isn’t bored any more after the blonde in the bikini shows up. She was going for a swim in the middle of a storm and she ended up at his cottage. She figures out who he is pretty quickly. The newspapers say he was a hitman. Since she knows so much he’s going to have to trust her. And he does trust her. He doesn’t know her name so he just calls her Blondie.

She’s married to a much older man. A very rich older man. Blondie likes money.

Of course Gary and Blondie begin an affair. And of course they fall in love. Blondie is not the sort of girl who is likely to just walk away from a rich husband. And now the rich husband is taking her away, to Nice. Permanently. Which means the end of the nice little affair with Gary. But there’s nothing to be done about it. As long as her husband is alive she won’t leave him. Of course if her husband was no longer alive she’d be very rich and could do whatever she wanted to.

While Gary and Blondie try to solve this conundrum another hitman has arrived in the village. Burton (Philip Stone) is there to kill Gary Stevens.

Suzan Farmer is very good as Blondie. Ian Bannen is also very good as Gary’s fisherman buddy Doonan. The problem is Bradford Dillman. He gives a rather lifeless performance, suggesting that he just wanted the pay cheque.

Philip Stone was an odd choice to play a hitman. He was a very competent actor and could play sinister rôles but he might have been more at home playing the sort of man who orders others to do his killing for him. The oddness of the casting does work in its own way. And I guess a hitman who looks more like a bank manager or a village pharmacist would be a pretty effective hitman. His American accent is however atrocious.

The script (as usual it was written by Brian Clemens) combines several ideas that aren’t exactly dazzlingly original but Clemens gives them some new touches and throws in some wonderful twists at the end.

Thanks to those twists Death in Deep Water is a pretty high note for the series to go out on.

Final Thoughts

The last season of Thriller is better than many people would have you believe and both A Midsummer Nightmare and Death in Deep Water are highly recommended.

Monday, 27 December 2021

13 Demon Street (1959)

13 Demon Street was a horror anthology series created by Curt Siodmak. It was made in Sweden in 1959 but was shot in English with mostly American casts. Thirteen episodes were made. It was aired in syndication in the United States.

Curt Siodmak (brother of film director Robert Siodmak) had a varied and interesting career as a novelist, screenwriter and occasional director, mostly in the science fiction and horror genres.

Lon Chaney Jr provides an introduction to each episode, in the guise of a man who has been cursed for all eternity for some terrible crime. He can only escape the curse if he can find some crime more heinous than his own, so he is telling us these stories in the hope of convincing us that there really are worse crimes than his own (although he doesn’t tell us what his crime was).

Three episodes were later edited together to make a movie called The Devil’s Messenger, and since all three episodes were quite good the movie ended up as a reasonably good anthology movie.

One of the recurring themes in this series seems to be the fuzziness of the boundary between reality and illusion, and between sanity and madness. Strange things happen, but are they really happening? These are ideas that are explored fairly effectively in several episodes.

It’s also a series that captures an atmosphere of subtle weirdness quite well.

A few other episodes are available from various sources. Something Weird Video’s DVD release of another interesting anthology series of that era, The Veil, includes two episodes of 13 Demon Street as extras. The horror in 13 Demon Street is perhaps slightly more overt but like The Veil it suffers at times from not providing totally satisfying payoffs. It’s less original than The Veil but overall it’s slightly more effective.

The Vine of Death

The Vine of Death was directed by Curt Siodmak who also co-wrote the script with Leo Guild. An archaeologist in Copenhagen plants some 4,000-year-old bulbs, from an extinct vine known as the Mirada Death Vine. Legend has it that the vine has an affinity for dead human bodies. The bulbs appear to be hopelessly desiccated but the archaeologist, Dr Frank Dylan, has the crazy idea that he can get them to grow.

There’s a romantic triangle involving Dr Dylan’s wife Terry and a neighbour. It leads to murder, and it leads to other bizarre consequences.

This is a genuinely weird and creepy story and it’s pretty good.

The Black Hand

The Black Hand was directed by Curt Siodmak and written by Siodmak and Richard Jairus Castle. It’s a pretty hackneyed idea. Dr Heinz Schloss is involved in an auto accident and to escape from his burning car he has to amputate his own hand (which is at least a suitably macabre touch).

He transplants a psychopathic murderer’s hand onto his arm (without knowing that it’s a murderer’s hand) and of course you know what’s going to happen next. It’s mostly predictable but the fact Dr Schloss is a surgeon adds a bit of interest - a surgeon has to be able to trust his hands.

It’s reasonably well executed but the basic idea has been handled better before, notably in the movies The Hands of Orlac (1924) and Mad Love (1935).

The Photograph

The Photograph was written and directed by Curt Siodmak. Donald Powell is a fashion photographer and he’s a bit of a creep. His friend Charlie thinks he needs a break. He should go to Maine and do some real photography. Donald takes his advice. The first thing that attracts his interest in Maine is an old house, but he’s even more interested in the young woman who emerges from the house. For Donald it’s an instantaneous obsession. With disastrous consequences.

Now it’s one of the photos he took in Maine that has him worried. It doesn’t look the same any more.

This episode is inspired by the classic M.R. James ghost story The Mezzotint. It’s slightly more interesting than it appears at first glance since there’s considerable ambiguity about what actually happened in Maine. It’s even possible that nothing happened.

Fever

Fever was written and directed by Curt Siodmak.

This episode shows much more promise. It’s a tale of a young doctor in Vienna the early years of the 20th century who is treating an ageing, brooding, alcoholic painter. The artist painted the same woman over and over, and the doctor becomes obsessed with her. Then he sees her in the house cross the street. But there isn’t a house across the street. And surely she’d be much older by now? So it it really her? Is she alive? Is he dreaming or awake? OK, it’s an idea that’s been done before but it’s executed with considerable skill and style.

And it is a nicely spooky story. I liked this one.

The Girl in the Glacier

The Girl in the Glacier was written and directed by Curt Siodmak. The body of a naked girl, frozen in the ice of a glacier for 50,000 years, is found in a mineshaft. The block of ice in which she is embedded is taken to a museum. Dr. Ben Seastrom, the anthropologist put in charge of trying to preserve the girl’s body, becomes obsessed by her. He starts to develop some pretty strange ideas about her.

In fact he starts to fall in love with the long-dead girl. He buys some pretty clothes for her. He also gets the idea that maybe she isn’t really dead, that maybe if he can find a way to very slowly unfreeze her she’ll come back to life. Maybe he’s brilliant but he’s clearly crazy. Or is he?

Again it’s not a dazzlingly original idea but it’s handled quite well.

Condemned in the Crystal

Condemned in the Crystal was directed by Curt Siodmak and written by Dory Previn (better known as a singer-songwriter).

John Radian is a middle-aged man troubled by dreams. The dreams take place in an old semi-derelict building and they are about the foretelling of the future. His psychiatrist explains to him that he wants to know his future but is also afraid of knowing. The psychiatrist suggests that he should face his fears. He should go to that building (the building really exists and Radian knows where it is).

Radian takes his doctor’s advice. When he finds the building he finds a gypsy woman, a fortune-teller. She sees John Radian’s future in her crystal ball. She tells him his future and that he cannot escape it. Of course he tries to do so.

This is a nicely suspenseful episode, with some cleverly ambiguous touches. We know what is going to happen because we’ve heard the fortune-teller tell Radian, but her prediction seems to make no sense. We cannot see (and John Radian cannot see) how such a thing could happen. The ending is effective. A good episode.

Final Thoughts

It’s not easy to make an overall judgment on this series based on the half-dozen episodes that I’ve seen. A couple of the episodes are certainly unoriginal but others really are pleasingly weird and disturbing. 13 Demon Street had potential and it’s worth a look.

Friday, 10 December 2021

The Saint in colour

In 1966 ITC decided it was time to switch to colour for the new season of The Saint. There were a couple of other minor changes as well, the most notable being that we now get a voiceover introduction to each episode rather than having Simon Templar break the fourth wall and address the audience directly.

Overall though it’s the formula as before. If you have a formula that works why change it?

So, some reviews of early fifth season episodes chosen at random.

The Queen’s Ransom

In The Queen’s Ransom (which aired in 1966) Simon finds himself involved, very indirectly, in a revolution after he saves the life of a deposed Middle Eastern king. The revolution is intended to restore King Fallouda to his throne. The Saint has mixed feelings about revolutions but in this case he feels that the restoration of the king really would a good idea. The problem is that the money to finance the revolution will have to come from the sale of Queen Adana’s jewels and they’re in a safety deposit box in Zurich. The Queen will have to fetch them and Simon’s job is to protect her and the jewels.

This episode then becomes a kind of Couple on the Run story as Simon and Queen Adana are chased about Europe by the king’s enemies who intend to get those jewels. It’s a typical Saintly adventure, with Adana and Simon at each other’s throats at first, much to Simon’s amusement.

There’s the usual Saintly mix of adventure with a dash of humour but with quite a bit more action compared to the earlier black-and-white seasons. And the action is noticeably more violent (although it’s still very restrained compared to the direction British television would take in the mid-70s).

The sparks really do fly between the Queen and the Saint. There’s no hint of romance (Queen Adana is very happily married to the King and is absolutely faithful to him). Queen Adana tries her best to be regal and mostly succeeds although at times she is reminded that before she was a queen she was the daughter of a London bus driver. Dawn Addams does a fine job of being queenly while giving us occasional subtle glimpses of her working-class background.

A very entertaining episode.

The Reluctant Revolution

The Reluctant Revolution takes place in the South American dictatorship of San Pablo. Simon runs across an attractive young woman named Diane (played by Jennie Linden) who has a gun in her purse. He fears she might be going to try to kill someone and that proves to be the case. She wants to kill the dictator’s right-hand man, and that gets both Diane and Simon mixed up in an attempted revolution.

The Saint isn’t altogether sure he approves of revolutions. They usually end with a lot of innocent people being killed. If only one could have a revolution without bloodshed. Perhaps it can be done, if Simon can make use of his skills as a confidence trickster.

An enjoyable episode.

Interlude in Venice

In Interlude in Venice Simon is seeing the sights when trouble finds him (as it always does) and he has to rescue an American girl from a too-insistent would-be Lothario. The American girl, Cathy, is about to get herself in more hot water (something she seems to have a talent for), this time with a sleazy prince. 

This one was perhaps a bit too ambitious, with lots of blue-screen stuff to convince us that Roger Moore is really zipping around the canals of Venice when quite obviously the entire episode was shot in the studio. At least the blue-screen stuff is fairly well done.

As you would expect it turns out that things are not quite what they seem. A pretty decent episode.

The House on Dragon’s Rock

The House on Dragon’s Rock, which was directed by Roger Moore, is a very untypical episode of The Saint. It’s more like a 1950s science fiction monster movie with a bit of Hammer-style gothic atmosphere thrown in. Simon arrives in a small Welsh village to find that strange and disturbing things have been happening. The latest mystery is the disappearance of a shepherd named Owen and when Owen is finally found the mystery remains as deep as ever.

The villagers are convinced that it has something to do with the scientific experiments being carried out in the big old house on Dragon’s Rock.

This is not just a monster movie story, it’s also a mad scientist story with Anthony Bate as Dr Charles Sardon making a pretty effective mad scientist. Dr Sardon has his own ideas about the future of the planet.

Much of this episode was actually shot in Wales, with mostly Welsh actors. To venture so far from the studio was highly unusual for 1960s British television. And there are special effects. OK, the special effects are roughly of the standard you’d expect in a 1960s Doctor Who episode but given the tone of the episode they work well enough.

There has to be a pretty girl in an episode of The Saint and in this case it’s Annette Andre (later to be better known from her regular role in Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased).

Roger Moore plays things pretty straight which, given the outlandish plot, was probably a very sound idea.

There’s an obvious attempt to get away from the flat lighting so characteristic of 1960s television and achieve a more atmospheric effect.

The House on Dragon’s Rock is a great deal of fun.

The Man Who Liked Lions

A journalist, a friend of Simon’s, is murdered in broad daylight in Rome. Needless to say Simon makes it his business to find out why. The trail leads him first to artist Claudia Molinelli but what Simon really wants is to find the Man Who Likes Lions. Eventually he finds him. He is Tiberio Magadino (Peter Wyngarde) and apart from being obsessed with lions he is obsessed by Ancient Rome. He dreams of recapturing the glory of Ancient Rome but it’s the way he earns his living that interests Simon.

The plot isn’t all that special but it’s the outrageous execution that makes this a memorable episode.

This is one of several memorable TV guest roles that Peter Wyngarde did in the 60s before finding fame in Department S and Jason King. His most notorious guest role of course was in the A Touch of Brimstone episode of The Avengers (the one with Mrs Peel as the Queen of Sin).

Friday, 26 November 2021

John Theydon’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (TV tie-in novel)

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was the first of three TV tie-novels accompanying Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s TV series of the same name. Written by John William Jennison (1911-1980) under the name John Theydon the novel appeared in 1967.

If you’re thinking of reading this book I’m assuming you’re a fan of the TV series (which I reviewed here a few years ago).

Earth attacked and destroyed a Martian city after a series of misunderstandings (and driven to a large extent by panic). The Mysterons, the masters of the city, recreated it and are now undertaking a program of vengeance against the Earth. Earth’s only effective defence is an international security organisation known as Spectrum. The Mysterons have the power to destroy things (and people) and then recreate them. People recreated in this way are effectively slaves of the Mysterons. Spectrum does however have one ace up its sleeve. One of their operatives, Captain Scarlet, was Mysteronised but is no longer a slave of the Mysterons, and he is indestructible.

The novel concerns an attempt by the Mysterons to disrupt the world’s weather (a popular science fictional idea in the 60s that was also utilised in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea).

The Mysterons make use of a bitter scientific rivalry between Professor Deitz (who believes the world’s weather can be controlled by satellites) and Professor Stahndahl (who believes he can control the planet’s weather by bouncing a beam off a newly discovered electro-magnetic layer surrounding the Earth).

The first target of the Mysterons is London which gets hit with a tropical storm of extraordinary severity. Captain Scarlet and Rhapsody Angel (one of Spectrum’s five beautiful girl fighter pilots known as the Angels) are on leave in London at the time and are lucky to survive.

The next target is Florida. The most savage hurricane in history is just three hours from the coast. The only thing that Colonel White commander of Spectrum) can think of to do is to order three of the Angels to nuke the hurricane!

Colonel White suspects that one of Professor Deitz’s for weather-control satellites has been destroyed and recreated by the Mysterons and is responsible for the weather chaos. That satellite has to be intercepted and destroyed but destroying something that has been Mysteronised is no easy task. There is a way the satellite could be destroyed but it will be risky.

Unfortunately for Spectrum the Mysterons’ plan is actually much more devious than just hijacking a satellite. Somehow Captain Scarlet will have to find the secret laboratory from which all the damage is being done. Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility will be put to the test during this adventure.

Theydon was obviously aiming to include as much as possible of the high-tech Spectrum equipment featured in the series. The Angel Interceptors, the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicles (kind of like high-speed wheeled super-tanks) and the Spectrum Passenger Jets all feature in this tale. He also clearly wanted to find ways to work into the story as many as possible of the show’s main characters - Captain Scarlet and his buddy Captain Blue, Colonel White, all five Angels and of course the sinister Mysteron agent (and former Spectrum officer) Captain Black. Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility naturally has to play an important part. Theydon wants to throw everything into the mix and he does so pretty successfully.

There’s non-stop action, plenty of narrow escapes and lots of things get blown up. And some of them get blown up by nuclear weapons! Rhapsody Angel is captured by the Mysterons and has to be saved.

The plotting is frenetic and reasonably effective.

This is a book aimed at younger readers so there’s no sex and the violence is not too graphic. There is (as in the TV series) some mild flirtation between Captain Scarlet and one of the Angels but it’s all very wholesome. The tone is very close to that of the series.

Overall it’s a surprisingly entertaining little adventure. It’s definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of the TV series. Recommended.

Saturday, 13 November 2021

Lexx (1996-2002)

Lexx is a series that lies slightly outside the usual time frame covered by this blog but if you’re talking about cult TV then Lexx is about as cult as you can get. Compared to most US and British sci-fi series Lexx is wildly different. This ain’t Star Trek.

The first season of Lexx is a series of four TV movies. It then became a regular series for three further series.

Lexx polarised sci-fi fans at the time and it still polarises people.

It’s the story of four oddly assorted people (only one of whom is entirely human) who roam the galaxy in the most powerful and destructive spacecraft ever built, the Lexx. The Lexx is a living spaceship.

At this point, if you’ve never seen Lexx, you might be thinking that it sounds like a rip-off of Farscape. In fact Lexx preceded Farscape by a couple of years so if there was any borrowing of ideas going on it was Farscape that copied Lexx. And Lexx is as different from Farscape as any two series could possibly be. Lexx is very very unconventional.

Lexx was a Canadian-German co-production, and that’s significant. It has a very European feel. It rejects conventional Anglo-American approaches altogether. It’s interesting to compare it to Star Maidens, a much earlier example of a distinctively European approach to sci-fi (Star Maidens was an Anglo-German production). Lexx, like Star Maidens, is sci-fi with sexual themes and they’re very sexual and they’re kinda kinky.

Stanley Tweedle (Brian Downey), a very unimportant very low-level functionary in the service of His Divine Shadow, gets caught in the middle of a revolution in the Cluster (the capital city of the League of 20,000 Planets). Also caught up in this revolution are 790, Zev Bellringer (Eva Habermann) and Kai and these four will end up forming the crew of the Lexx.

790 used to be a robot but all that’s left of him is a head, but he still has his robot brain. Unfortunately when Zev’s transformation into a love slave went slightly wrong he became part love slave and since the only female around is Zev he develops a sexual obsession with her.

Kai (Michael McManus) is the last of the Brunnen-G, warriors who once won great victories for humanity. He’s been dead for 2,000 years but he can be reactivated. Kai is used by His Divine Shadow as a merciless assassin. Kai can be reanimated with proto-blood but the supply is limited.

Zev is a woman who failed in her wifely duties. As punishment she was reprogrammed into a living sex slave. But something went wrong. She’s now almost entirely a human woman and almost entirely a love slave but she has just a touch of Cluster Lizard in her. Since Cluster Lizards are awesome killing machines that touch of Cluster Lizard can come in handy. What makes this particularly useful is that people look at her and just see a pretty young girl and they tend to underestimate her. If they upset her she can turn them into minced dog food in a trice. And she’s quite happy to do this.

As for His Divine Shadow, he rules the League of 20,000 Planets in the name of order (and a kind of religion) but his regime is both totalitarian and arbitrarily brutal. There are heretics who seek to destroy his regime.

So why did (and do) so many people hate Lexx? That’s easy enough to answer. Lexx rides roughshod over the conventions of both its genre and series television as well. Many science fiction fans could not accept the way it combines apparently incompatible elements - it veers from goofy comedy to incredible darkness and nihilism, it combines extreme violence with overt sexuality. And it does not have conventional sci-fi heroes. Many viewers could accept the idea of a cast that included a few amusing misfits but they could not accept a series without at least one conventional Square-Jawed Hero and at least one conventional Strong Capable Woman.

The four regulars are all misfits, but they’re not even conventional anti-heroes or flawed heroes. Stanley is cowardly and untrustworthy, and obsessed with getting into Zev’s pants. Kai is a merciless killer. 790 is a disembodied robot head who wants to be Zev’s sex slave. Zev is a sweet girl but she’s totally amoral and she’s a nymphomaniac. All four take great delight in slaughtering their enemies, or even just anyone who gets in their way. They do what it takes to survive. And they’re the Good Guys.

Lexx
is also cheerfully politically incorrect and cheerfully sleazy.

If your idea of TV sci-fi is Star Trek: The Next Generation it’s all a bit bewildering. It has dialogue that you just don’t get in Star Trek: TNG. At one point Zev asks 790, “What sort of robot are you?” To which he replies, “I’m a robot that wants to live in your underpants.”

Of course the very things that some sci-fi fans hated about Lexx are the very things that made other fans love it with a passion. Lexx is sci-fi for grown-ups. This is not a kids’ show. While its critics saw it as appallingly disreputable its fans saw it as delightfully disreputable and loved its wild unconventionality.

Lexx is also extraordinarily impressive visually. It was the first sci-fi series to use CGI effectively and imaginatively. There is so much sexual symbolism in the visuals that one’s head begins to spin. This is not a kids’ show. But given the sexlessness of most TV science fiction Lexx’s approach is refreshing.

It also covers all bases when it comes to eye candy. Female viewers could swoon over the handsome psychologically tortured bad boy Kai. Male viewers could drool over the luscious Zev.

Episode Guide

The first movie, I Worship His Shadow, explains how four misfits gained control of the most powerful destructive force in the galaxy. It gives us our first glimpse into the Lexx universe. Or rather, the two Lexx universes. There’s the Light Universe and the Dark Universe. The Light Universe represents order, the Dark Universe represents evilness. But this is Lexx, so things are not that simple. The Light Universe is ruled by His Divine Shadow and there is certainly order there, but in fact it’s a bureaucratic dystopian nightmare. There’s chaos in the Dark Universe, but also the possibility of freedom and dignity. If you can survive.

Super Nova
takes us to the home planet of the Brunnen-G, where Zev hopes to find a way to restore Kai to life. At the moment he has a kind of precarious half-life. He can be revived for brief periods but that’s not enough to give Zev what she needs. As she admits to Stanley, her sexual needs are beyond measurement. The Brunnen-G home world is an abandoned dying planet with a sun that is only prevented from going supernova by artificial means. Giggerota the Wicked, who featured in the first episode, makes a reappearance. She’s not a very nice lady. For one thing she’s a cannibal, and that’s one of her lesser character flaws. Both Giggerota and the Divine Predecessors (the disembodied brains of previous incarnations of His Divine Shadow) are trying to get control of the Lexx.

Visually this episode is perhaps even more bizarrely imaginative than the first episode. It also significantly ramps up the kinkiness factor and the erotic subtexts. Eva Habermann even has a brief but memorable nude scene.

We get to know some of the characters a bit better. Stanley is a coward who displays occasional brief flashes of courage, and he’s treacherous and untrustworthy but capable of occasional moments of self-sacrificing loyalty. He’s more than a mere comic character. Zev is single-minded, ruthless and driven by lust.

Things take a decided turn for the grungy and the gruesome in Eating Pattern. Lexx is hungry. Less is of course a living spaceship and he has to eat. And if Lexx is starving his crew starves - they depend on him for their food supply. So although the planet Klaagia on which they have chosen to land looks very uninviting (it’s literally a garbage dump) they don’t have much choice. The planet’s inhabitants are very excited to see Zev. What they see is fresh meat. They depend on a substance called Pattern, and you can’t make Pattern without meat. The only meat on the planet is human. But fresh human meat makes excellent Pattern.

It’s a nightmare planet ruled by the clearly insane Bog (Rutger Hauer giving a deliciously off-the-wall performance). There’s also a pretty young woman named Wist (Doreen Jacobi). She’s cute and sexy and very very dangerous. Everyone on the planet is insane but it takes a while before we figure out the horrifying explanation.

It’s Rutger Hauer and Doreen Jacobi who make this episode worth watching.

Giga Shadow gets into seriously epic territory. Things have been happening in the Light Universe. Scary things, like the Cleansing and the Rebirth. And the emergence of the Giga Shadow. Heretical clerics, including Yottskry (Malcom McDowell) have tried to stop the Giga Shadow and have failed. The crew of the Lexx know nothing of this when they decide to return to the Light Universe to replenish Kai’s proto-blood supply.

We get more character development. Zev had a horrific and very artificial upbringing. She doesn’t really know what it’s like to be human, and she doesn’t really know what it’s like to be a woman. But she is a woman and she’s having to learn to grow up and deal with a woman’s emotions. She shows unexpected tenderness and unexpected emotional depth in this episode. Eva Habermann gives a startlingly good performance.

And Kai changes as well. He’s dead but he lives and he’s having to come to terms with that. And he gets a pet - a cute little baby cluster lizard. He actually manages to bond emotionally with his pet. Perhaps Zev will be able to teach him to bond emotionally with her? Stanley displays surprising intelligence and we start to see that while he’s still a coward there are smidgeons of decency and even bravery buried deeply within him.

Final Thoughts

Lexx is dark, richly imaginative, intelligent, crazy, sexy, sleazy, violent, outrageous, inspired, visually lush, funny and goofy and if you just go with the flow it’s an amazing ride. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 28 October 2021

a second look at Hart to Hart season 1 (1980)

I did a brief writeup of the first season of Hart to Hart a while back and I was a bit lukewarm about this series. Having watched a few more episodes I’m inclined to be a bit more generous.

Hart to Hart was created by Sidney Sheldon who as well as having a successful career in television was also one of the bestselling novelists of all time. Neither his TV series not his novels were ever going to be described as art but they weren’t supposed to be. Sheldon was perfectly content to be an entertainer and laugh all the way to the bank.

The executive producers on Hart to Hart were Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, who were of course also responsible (among many other series) for Charlie’s Angels. And Hart to Hart strikes me in much the same way that Charlie’s Angels does. Both shows have a winning formula. Both Hart to Hart and Charlie’s Angels have glamorous charismatic leads, and both feature comic relief (provided by Lionel Stander and David Doyle respectively) that can be a bit overdone. And both series suffer somewhat from lazy writing. You often find yourself thinking that a bit more effort put into the scripts might have paid dividends. Both both series were hugely successful. Which tends to indicate that Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg probably knew a whole lot more about making successful television than I do.

In fact it’s possible that in the case of both shows the secret of their success was that they didn’t try too hard. They were television comfort food. They didn’t alienate viewers (who just wanted something relaxing and entertaining to watch) by trying to be too clever or too arty.

And both series succeeded by creating an aura of glamour, by having very attractive leads and by offering good-natured fun. And occasionally both series would come up with episodes that were unexpectedly good.

Hart to Hart (to an even greater extent than than Charlie’s Angels) is all about glamour. This was after all a concept dreamed up by Sidney Sheldon - take rich glamorous beautiful people and have them murder each other, with style. In this case you have a husband and wife who are rich and famous and don’t need to bother with work unless they feel like it (which they rarely do). They amuse themselves by solving murders. Being rich they don’t need to get paid for this, and being rich they can rely on the police indulging their hobby. It was a formula that obviously appealed to viewers. And it does work. Jonathan and Jennifer Hart are rich and famous but they’re not obnoxious about it. They’re likeable and really they’re just like any normal married couple (who happen to be fabulously rich and famous).

Glamour is something that doesn’t really exist in modern television or movies. Sure there are rich people, but real glamour is a different thing. Real glamour comes from sublime self-confidence, it has to be effortless, and Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers have it. This is the glamour that movie stars used to have. They don’t make movie stars like Robert Wagner any more and even in the 80s they didn’t make movie stars like Robert Wagner any more. That’s why his performance works. The producers wanted a Cary Grant for the 80s and that’s what they got. His career started in 1950 and seventy years later he’s still working. His earlier series It Takes a Thief is well worth checking out. Stefanie Powers had already demonstrated her suitability for this kind of light-hearted television with The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. back in the 60s.

Compared to other hugely successful 80s TV series Hart To Hart is not so obviously 80s. The stories could just as easily have taken place in the 1930s and the characters could easily have been taken from golden age Hollywood movies. It’s a series that takes place in its own universe where money and class never go out of fashion.

What’s also great about this series is that there’s no fashionable irony, and no snarkiness.

The DVD release includes a documentary which features many of the key people behind the series - Sidney Sheldon, executive producer Leonard Goldberg, writer Tom Mankiewicz and the two stars, Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers.

Episode Guide

In Which Way, Freeway? A rich jeweller is murdered and the key witness is Freeway (the Harts’ dog). Actually here are two key witness, Freeway and his doggie friend Suzie. And the murderers will have to do something about those witnesses. The plot is really pretty thin and a bit far-fetched but there’s an excellent golf cart chase and there’s a luggage cart chase as well. And there are cute doggies in danger, to provide the necessary suspense (and emotional investment for the audience). It has no right to work, but somehow it does.

In Downhill to Death Jennifer is doing something unusual. She’s working (she’s supposedly a journalist). She’s in a restaurant interviewing a punk rocker when she overhears a conversation between a man and a woman in a neighbouring booth, and the subject of conversation is murder. And the man is an old friend of the Harts. Could he really be plotting to murder his wife? This one has a reasonably twisty plot and (something of a defining characteristic of this series) an unusual chase, this time with snowmobiles. Very entertaining.

The Raid is more of an action episode. A husband-and-wife scientist team is kidnapped in a mythical South American country. They work for Jonathan and they’re also friends of the Harts. The local police won’t help, nor will the State Department so Jonathan teams up with an old buddy (a would-be revolutionary but a good revolutionary not one of the bad ones) to foil the kidnappers. A routine episode.

Things take a decided turn for the silly in Sixth Sense. A young female psychic working for Jonathan has a precognitive vision of her own murder. This was 1980, when ESP was still fashionable and some people still thought it was just vaguely plausible. That vision turns out to be both true and false. The plot is a bit complicated and very silly and very goofy. To a large extent it’s an excuse for the two leads to really ham it up, with Jonathan playacting as a Sam Spade-style hardboiled private eye and Stefanie Powers really going to town as a gypsy fortune-teller. If you’re going to do an episode such as this you have to be prepared to go totally over-the-top and embrace the fun and the goofiness and that’s what Wagner and Powers do (Powers is particularly good). And it actually works. It really does come across as charming and fun.

A woman tries, unsuccessfully, to kill Jennifer’s hairdresser in Does She or Doesn't She? Barry (the hairdresser) doesn’t seem the type to get involved in that kind of romantic drama. He likes women but he won’t have anything to do with married women. And Sally Hutchins is married. The Harts figure that maybe something else is going on here and that’s enough to get them interested. Quite a decent plot in this episode. Good stuff.

Cruise at Your Own Risk
takes the Harts to sea. There have been burglaries on several of Jonathan’s cruise liners (yes apart from all the other things he owns he owns three cruise liners). The insurance company is being difficult so the Harts set out to solve the burglary themselves. Jonathan will pose as a businessman taking his mistress on a cruise (with Jennifer playing the mistress). It’s fun to hear guest star John Hillerman (from Magnum, P.I.) talking with his natural American accent. OK, the plot is a bit thin but it’s enjoyable fluff which is what this series is all about.

The question in Too Many Cooks Are Murder is why anyone would want to try to murder a French chef. The answer is that he’s made a discovery, but no-one knows what the discovery is. All the Harts (who happened to be present when the attempt was made) know is that it’s something worth killing for. This one works quite well.

In Death Set the Harts’ friends Darryl and Blair Craddock are having marital problems. Darryl is starting to think that maybe his very rich family was right about Blair marrying him for his money. It all leads to a shooting tragedy. The Harts witnessed the shooting but even they don’t know what really happened. They are however determined to find out. What they uncover is a decent little mystery. You don’t want to think too much about some of the details of the plot but all in all a good solid season finale.

Final Thoughts

Watching Hart To Hart is like skipping dinner and going straight to dessert. Maybe it’s not nutritious but it goes down very easily. It aims to glamour and effortless charm and that’s what it achieves. This series has definitely grown on me. Recommended.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), updated review

Carl Kolchak, investigative reporter with a nose for stories involving the supernatural, the paranormal and the just plain weird, made his first appearance in two TV movies. These were successful enough to spawn a series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which aired on the American ABC network in 1974-75. Sadly the series lasted only a single season. The network might have been well advised to give the series more time to establish an audience. After its cancellation it quickly achieved cult status and became extremely popular in syndication.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker was to the 70s what The X-Files was to the 90s. Kolchak keeps running across stories that just cannot be explained except as supernatural or paranormal phenomena or occasionally just weird fringe science. If only he could just get hold of some hard evidence. But he never does. Or if he does, it gets taken away from him or destroyed. Or for some reason his stories just get killed. But just like Mulder Carl Kolchak never gives up.

Darren McGavin was perfectly cast as Kolchak, a rumpled eccentric who revels in his reputation as a pushy oddball. Kolchak has its tongue-in-cheek side and it has its darker side as well and McGavin handles both effortlessly (anyone who doubts McGavin’s ability to be dark and edgy obviously hasn’t seen him in the late 50s Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series).

You just really really want Kolchak to one day get the evidence he needs, you know he never will but you know he’ll just keep on trying. He’s a reporter. He doesn’t care about having doors slammed in his face. He doesn’t care about being harassed by the cops. He doesn’t care if people thinks he’s annoying and pushy. He doesn’t care if he makes his editor want to tear his hair out. Those are just the challenges that make being a reporter so much fun. And Kolchak loves being a reporter more than life itself.

This is a series that had a lot of promise but it never quite found its feet. Of course it wasn’t given time to do so. At times it does rely too much on Monster of the Week stories. It’s never quite sure if it wants to stick to the slightly jokey tongue-in-cheek tone or if it wants to get dark and serious. The episodes that rely on special effects suffer from the fact that the effects sometimes look cheap. But the promise was there and there are plenty of solid episodes with original and creepy ideas.

The series may just have been ahead of its time. Even science fiction series had a rough time on US television in the 60s. Weird stuff seemed to be accepted in anthology series (such as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone) but perhaps audiences were not ready for a series that must have seemed an odd mix of a conventional newspaper reporter drama with outrageous story lines. It may have been too much of a collision between television drama normality and weirdness. The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone really didn’t pretend to take place in our reality, but Kolchak did. Two decades later The X-Files was a major hit, following just about the same formula.

Episode Guide

In Mr R.I.N.G. Kolchak stumble across a secret government robotics project called R.I.N.G. (Robomatic Internalized Nerve Ganglia). And it appears that one of their robots is loose, and he’s kinda dangerous. This is a very paranoid X-Files sort of story with the US Government, and especially the military, as the enemy. And the military is a much scarier enemy than any mere monster. An extremely good episode.

They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be… is the other Kolchak episode that is in the X-Files kind of mould. It starts with some seriously weird unexplained happenings. Zoo animals supposedly vanishing. People dying and the post-mortems reveal odd disturbing things. Electronic equipment that goes missing. There’s no actual evidence of anything, so why are the Feds so interested and what are they covering up? If you can’t afford fancy special effects a really good option is to avoid showing anything and rely on suggestion and that’s what his episode does. A lot of people don’t like this episode and I can see why. It is very low-key and lacks any real scares. But it is extremely interesting and I’m quite fond of it.

In Primal Scream an oil company has found some strange cells in a core sample from the Arctic. What’s really strange is that the cells are millions of years old but they show signs of life. Then there are the murders. Murders so brutal it’s as if they were carried out by something not quite human. And Carl Kolchak has some photos of footprints are they’re not quite human either. A fairly typical Kolchak episode, a bit silly but kind of fun.

The better Kolchak episodes are the ones that don’t rely on guys in monster suits and have to rely instead on atmosphere and genuine scares. Episodes like The Trevi Collection in which Kolchak discovers the links between the worlds of high fashion and witchcraft. There are some women who want to have it all, and they are willing to practise the black arts to achieve their desires. Store mannequins are always slightly creepy (the whole uncanny valley thing) and they play a big rôle in this episode. There are also a couple of pretty devious murders. On the whole an excellent episode.

In Chopper a graveyard is cleared for the construction of condominiums. Disturbing the dead is not a good idea. Several brutal slayings follow, with witnesses reporting a headless figure on a motorcycle. Carl gets some photos of tyre tracks but that makes things more confusing - such tyres have not been made for nearly twenty years. They’re the tyres you would have expected to find on the sorts of motorcycles that were popular with motorcycle gangs in the 1950s. Of course there’s no point in trying to tell the police any of this. Kolchak will have to deal with this mystery on his own, if he lives long enough. A pretty decent idea mostly well executed even if the headless biker is a bit unconvincing.

Demon in Lace involves the mysterious deaths of a number of young male college students. There’s no obvious cause of death but they died looking very scared. In each case the body was found along with the body of a young woman, but what worries Kolchak is that the young women had not died at the same time as the young men. And then there’s that Mesopotamian tablet with the weird inscription. The translation of one of the words as succubus worries Kolchak a lot. A truly excellent episode.

Legacy of Terror begins with two murders, both victims having had their hearts torn out. Literally. The only people Carl can think of who do things like that are the Aztecs, but Aztecs in Chicago in the 1970s. It seems unlikely. Then a third similar murder follows and Kolchak starts to see a pattern. A very good episode.

The Knightly Murders begins with a political boss being killed by a crossbow bolt. More murders follow, all done with medieval weaponry. Is the murderer a disgruntled medievalist, an actual medieval knight, some kind of lunatic or something else entirely. Kolchak has his own ideas after having a close encounter with a lance. John Dehner guest stars as the delightfully egotistical, highly literary but incurably lazy Captain Vernon Rausch, a legend in the Homicide Squad. A good fun episode.

What do eternal youth, Greek goddesses and dating agencies have in common? Quite a lot perhaps. Beauty and physical perfection seem to Carl to be the connecting thread. Youth Killer actually starts with 90-year-olds dropping dead all over Chicago. Not very unusual, but the circumstances are puzzling. Carl is particularly intrigued by the ring and the glass eye. This is one of the best Kolchak episodes, combining cleverness with subtle creepiness and wit.

The Sentry takes place in a gigantic underground data storage facility. It seems there have been a few accidents at the facility. Bodies found with teeth marks. Reptilian teeth marks. The cop in charge of the case is a glamorous lady detective but she’s determined to stop Carl from digging around in this case. The setting is very cool but the monsters are pretty silly.  It’s still a fun episode in a good kind of way.

Final Thoughts

OK, some of the guy-in-a-rubber-suit monsters are a bit embarrassing and there are a few dud episodes but the good episodes outnumber the bad ones by a considerable margin. And the good episodes are often very good indeed. Darren McGavin is so likeable he makes even the weaker episodes watchable.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker is immense fun. Highly recommended.